Finding a Voice

Gerry Senechal: “What makes our organ so special, it has such a glorious ability to play whatever you throw at it.” | All photos courtesy St. St. George’s Episcopal Church, Nashville

The new Buzard Opus 48 organ inspires parishioners at St. George’s, Nashville, to sing out.

By Susan Byrum Rountree

For Gerry Senechal, this year’s Easter Day was like no other. As associate director of music ministries and organist at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tennessee, he had been planning his Easter hymns and anthems for months. Easter Day would be the day when St. George’s was decked out in her finest, not only with fresh Easter lilies, azaleas, and birds’ nests, but in the finest musical voice she’d ever known.

Early this year, St. George’s parishioners had watched as their new Buzard Opus 48 was installed by the masters of John-Paul Buzard Pipe Organ Builders. The Champagne, Illinois, artisans had been working with Senechal and with St. George’s director of music ministries, Dr. Woos Kang, since 2019 to craft a new organ with one main purpose: to encourage congregational singing.

Of course, the new Buzard Opus 48 would be a state-of-the-art instrument also designed for concerts and to accompany the choir. But what Senechal and Kang most wanted was to change the culture of the congregation, which — because the nave’s acoustics weren’t ideal — never had a penchant for singing hymns.

“The acoustic outright didn’t sound terrible,” Kang said. “Some thought it sounded quite good, but the flaws were hidden.” You couldn’t put your finger on what was wrong, he says, but it didn’t encourage singing. “Part of the problem was the acoustic missed the fundamental bass, [where people feel comfortable projecting and singing]. And the room made people sing in silos.”

“Worship is the highest thing we can do as humans,” Senechal said. “But to sing in the congregation was so alienating and disenfranchising. Whether you like music or not, the hymns are where the rubber meets the road.

“When you think of Christmas Eve,” Senechal added, “it’s not the Prayers of the People that first comes to mind. It’s not: ‘I can’t wait for the Confession of Sin at Easter!’ It’s the hymns.”

Dr. Woos Kang: “We were very fortunate to have John-Paul Buzard actually understand us. He’s actually from an Episcopal clergy family. John-Paul gets it.”

Four years ago, St. George’s original organ was near the end of its life, and Kang and Senechal knew they had some difficult choices to make. “The organ was going to require expensive upkeep,” Kang said. “And it was a product of its time. It was built for a particular style of music. We wanted an organ that would complement congregational singing, one that was inspiring.”

St. George’s congregation has been worshiping in the Belle Meade neighborhood of Nashville since the early 1950s. Through the decades, the church grew, and a new nave was built in 1986, with the choir seated behind the altar, which was covered by a baldachin.

“We had a woeful problem,” Senechal said. “Congregational singing was just abysmal. It sucked the life out of us as church musicians, because that’s our duty, to bring people into the holiest of holies, helping them to rise above everyday life and into the presence of God. And we just couldn’t do that. … It grieved us so much that the congregational singing was as bad as it was. It was never the people’s fault.”

Both he and Kang had long dreamed that a new organ would create a new atmosphere for congregational singing, but there would be no way to know until the first notes rang true.

So when Kang arrived at St. George’s in 2016, he and Senechal, who had been leading parish music at St. George’s for more than 15 years, started considering the issue. Because the choir stood behind the altar and baldachin, its sound didn’t reach the congregation to help with hymn-singing.

So they wondered, Kang said: “How could we bring the choir forward to be visible?”

That would mean a transformation of the nave, which would include addressing the space’s acoustics, in addition to installing a new organ. “We were confident that if we took the right steps and the right approach,” Kang said, “that when we shared [the plans about the organ] we would get support from the congregation. There is science with respect to the acoustic,” and moving the choir forward was “a visible manifestation of the plan.”

St. George’s, in the meantime, was growing. By 2000, the building included more than 85,000 square feet of worship, office, and education space. Then, 10 years later, the parish faced its greatest challenge during the historic Nashville floods, losing not only parts of the church but members of the congregation as well. But the congregation restored the buildings and continued to grow.

In April 2019, church leaders launched “Living Our Legacy,” a $24 million capital campaign, which included a massive expansion of office and multipurpose space for the church and parish kindergarten and the nave renovation for the new organ. By December of that year, Kang and Senechal had signed the contract with Buzard to build the new organ.

Kang and Senechal formed an organ committee within the parish and hired a consultant to help them find the perfect instrument. The committee traveled to 14 cities and considered 18 organs. “We had a very intense time listening to and trying several organs,” Kang said, taking the same hymns, psalms, organ pieces, and anthems to play on each instrument.

“We realized how intense that process was to our brains,” Kang added. “But we learned so much.”

Buzard was among the top three finalists.

“Our new organ was designed from the ground up to be an Anglican organ,” Senechal said. “It’s designed to accompany — whether that’s one child on Easter Day or a full choir, which is unique to the Anglican tradition. Some organs are built to play the organ repertoire very well, but in many cases are restricted. What makes our organ so special, it has such a glorious ability to play whatever you throw at it. Buzard rose to the top for us.”

Senechal grew up as a chorister in a boys’ choir in Worcester, Massachusetts. He heard his first English cathedral organ at 13 and returned to England many times to play and to sing. “The first time I sat down at the Buzard, I was hearing the same sounds,” he said. “I was hearing these distinctly Anglican sounds, but ours being an Anglican American organ, it has a beautiful inheritance of what American organs can do.”

St. George’s organ repertoire includes distinct solo sounds, but orchestral as well. “There is also a French influence in Buzard’s organs,” Senechal said. “The trilling sound you get from a French cathedral organ, which can be quite cold. It’s such a challenge to create an instrument that can do all of these things so well. At its heart, it’s about blending and accompanying and making everything work together.”

As they planned a series of concerts that would herald the arrival of the new organ, Kang and Senechal created a hymn festival as their first event. “Gerry and I agreed that the first concert would be a hymn sing,” Kang said. “We are not going to be apologetic about the purpose of the organ. And that was hymn-singing.”

“I’d never heard a sound like that,” Senechal said of the voices at the hymn festival. “The singing was incredible.” A number of singers and musicians came for the event, including people from the American Guild of Organists, so it wasn’t a typical Sunday congregation. “But we were hopeful that something like it would continue.”

And it did.

“From the first Sunday we used the organ, all of a sudden, everyone was signing!” Senechal said. Now, the congregation is singing well. “I expected it to take a few months for people to ramp up, but it didn’t. It has totally changed the way we are able to worship. I’ve been here 18 years, and I’ve been dragging myself to church on Sunday mornings. Now, I can’t wait for Sunday mornings. It’s the most exciting thing to sing and to worship with the people of our church. It’s already working.”

With the new organ, Kang said, parishioners felt something change and they became inspired. “That’s what we try to do in every worship service: we try to inspire people. They might not know how or why, they might not understand it, but they are feeling something.”

The pipes of the Opus 48 surround a stained-glass window and colorful cross at St. George’s, Nashville.

“I’ve got to hand it to the church,” Senechal said. “I don’t think they understood how badly the acoustic was before the new organ, but they loved and trusted us enough … they were partners in this process.

“You don’t have to know a thing about music,” Senechal said he told the congregation. “You’re going to feel the sound, you’re going to want to sing. But I knew deep down nobody believed us! For everyone to walk into the room and be able to feel the sound, to be gently enveloped by it, you have no choice but to sing. It has been the most wonderful surprise. Obviously we had the highest expectation for the organ and how it would affect worship, but it has exceeded all of our expectations.”

“We were very fortunate to have John-Paul Buzard actually understand us,” Kang said. “He’s not just building an organ to sell for high-profile organ concerts. He’s actually from an Episcopal clergy family. John-Paul gets it.”

“The people of St. George’s are a very driven, professional type of people,” Senechal said. “They have hard lives — they really do. They need so badly to come to church, to be able to lose themselves in the presence of God. This organ makes sounds we’ve never heard before. It does exactly what it’s supposed to do, to lift you out of all this. I’m still pinching myself.”

“My biggest surprise is how good it is,” Kang said. “I knew it was going to be good. My brain was giving me all the facts, but I was not quite ready for the impact it would have on me. Anybody who works at a church struggles with the balance between work and their own spirituality. To me, this is the connection that bridges the two. To have spent so much time on it, and to be able to feel it, especially the softer stops, how you’re practicing on your own when it’s quiet and you just enjoy the sound [as it] fills the room in the most warm and embracing manner.”

“Through music, maybe in music only,” Senechal said, “God gives us the smallest glimpse of the perfection of the glory of heaven, just the smallest. We have such a wonderful heritage of worship. Our hymnal, all the texts, Anglican chants, Evensong, accompanying the choir. The whole purpose of church music is the enliven the text more than it would be by itself. For me to be able to support the choir and the congregation, and to be adding to it, allowing it to be more inspirational, more worthy of worship, it’s brought me to tears many times.”

One Easter Day, when Senechal directed the choir and congregation in “He Is Risen,” the organ told it out in her new and most joyful voice.

Susan Byrum Rountree recently retired as director of communications for St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is the author of Nags Headers, a regional history set on North Carolina’s storied Outer Banks.

✜ ✜ ✜

‘You Can Hear the Love Coming Through the Pipes’

By Susan Byrum Rountree

John-Paul Buzzard is a cradle Episcopalian. His father, the Rev. Clifford H. Buzard, became rector of St. Paul’s Church by-the-Lake in Chicago in 1960 when John-Paul was 5.

The 3,067 pipes of St. George’s Buzard Opus 48 were “loved into being,” in the words of Fredrick Bahr, John-Paul Buzard Pipe Organ Builder’s tonal director.

“You have to put aside everything else, and love what you’re doing,” Buzard said. “If you don’t, the organ will sound that way. You must be in a graceful state of mind. And you can hear the love coming through the pipes.”

Buzard learned this from his mentor, the late Henry Willis IV, the last remaining family member of the Henry Willis & Sons organ-building dynasty of Liverpool, England.

“An organ, even when built to perfection, requires special treatment before it can truly sing,” Buzard said. “Voicing each pipe individually, then listening to them together in different musical contexts, creates a graceful sound apparent even to a novice.”

Buzard’s Opus 48 is different from most organs, he said. “A large percentage of this instrument is ‘under expression,’ with pipes housed in large boxes behind movable shutters, which can be opened and closed to gradually diminish or increase the volume of sound.”

“The hallmark of the instrument is that it is designed to be a liturgical organ, which will play the solo répertoire extremely well,” he said. “We also used a greater percentage of large, low-pitched pipes than typical. Liturgical expression comes into flower when it’s done extremely well. Organ, choir, congregation, preaching, must come together to speak to worshipers’ souls.”

After its nave’s renovation, St. George’s is one of the most perfect worship spaces to house a pipe organ, Buzard said.

Pipes for the four-keyboard instrument range in size from the 32-foot Low C to the High C of the 15th, which is an eighth of an inch in diameter and a quarter-inch long. The large metal pipes are made of a tin and lead alloy, with copper lining their feet and lower bodies. The smaller pipes are made of varied alloys of tin and lead. The 253 wood pipes are made of poplar and white pine.

Construction in the Buzard shop took more than 22 months, with the COVID pandemic causing some delays, Buzard said. “Every organ builder in the world was tossed on its ear,” he said. Buzard artisans couldn’t work for three months, and when they did return to work, crafting the new organ moved more slowly. Each piece was designed, assembled, and tested in Champaign, Illinois, and then dismantled and brought to Nashville, where it was put back together starting in July 2022.

In December 2022, as Buzard technicians began installing the pipes inside the instrument, parishioners had a unique perspective, Buzard adds: “People could see the pipes inside the organ very clearly. They could see the expression shutters move. Seeing the inside pipes and the expression mechanisms gives the congregation an unusual experience, which they will never have again, now that the front pipes are installed in the facades.” All but eight of the 220 façade pipes are speaking pipes.

When Buzard’s tonal director, Fred Bahr, and pipe voicer and voicing associate, Felix Franken, discussed what they wanted to hear in the final voicing, “They each spoke a different language,” Buzard said. “They could evaluate the same sound, but Fred spoke of poetry and language, and Felix related the sound to colors. They have a wonderful insight into how we hear.”

Buzard is a cradle Episcopalian. His father, the Rev. Clifford H. Buzard, became rector of St. Paul’s Church by-the-Lake in Chicago in 1960 when John-Paul was 5. At St. Paul’s, “I fell under the spell of organist/choirmaster, Albert Johann Strohm, who had been at St. Paul’s for 52 years” he said. “He is responsible for introducing me to the organ, but it was Dad who instilled in me the beauty, solemnity, and importance of liturgy and the Anglican tradition.”

Organs and music are a Buzard family affair. His wife, Linda, is organist and choirmaster at the Chapel of St. John the Divine, Champaign; his son, Stephen, serves as organist and choirmaster for St. James Episcopal Cathedral, Chicago; his daughter, Katie, is a singer in several ensembles in Chicago (including her brother’s), and writes music reviews and columns for WILL, the NPR station in Urbana.


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